Throughout my bicycle travels of the Northeast and Midwest I have stopped to read many historical markers. I like to see what happened there, learn the history of buildings, and better understand the arc of human civilization and society in each place along the way. From a train crash to early resident life to highlights of historical industries, the signs give me a slice of life and a sense of place. There are markers for so many reasons and topics, but sadly almost none for First Peoples and Native Americans.
The post-colonial American statues and plaques erase by exclusion over 10,000 years of human history on the continent. Almost every town that I have cycled through has some amount of indigenous history, settlement, and interaction with early European settlers, but none of that pre-colonial and parallel indigenous colonized history is memorialized. The very few markers that I’ve noticed along my three months of bike touring have been isolated to specific physical native sites – such as the ceremonial and burial mounds near Chillicothe, Ohio. But I have seen no markers in town centers or city parks. That is a huge missing piece of our human history in the United States.
The historical signs often highlight colonial settlers, advances in technology, industrial history, wars and forts, radically making over the land, and exploitation of resources. The signs rarely mention sustainable and natural ways of living within the Earth’s complex systems. Much of my tour has been alongside rivers full of sewage and accumulated industrial waste. Those rivers are flanked by historical markers celebrating adjacent developments that still use the river as a toilet on rainy days. Imagine rivers that we could fish and swim in. Imagine fertile soils not soaked in Roundup herbicide, insecticides, and petrochemical fertilizers. Imagine sustainably farmed lands that do more than alternate corn and soy monoculture. Looking back to indigenous societies that counted on plentiful natural resources and clean water, we might deeply consider our own choices, land use, and industries.
The glaring gap in signposted indigenous history is obvious in Hartford, Connecticut, just as it is in other cities and towns across the country. The Connecticut Riverfront in Hartford and East Hartford is full of statues originally sponsored by Lincoln Financial, none of them remotely mentioning the pre-colonial Suckiag and Wagunk settlements. The well-known American Revolution story of the Charter Oak, including the monument on Charter Oak Place, leaves out the pre-colonial history of what that tree meant to native residents of the area. To learn anything about early native history of the region one has to dig into online articles and scattered museum exhibits.
Hartford, nearby towns, and the riverfront would be richer with signs, historical markers, and statues in the city’s parks and public areas that highlight who came before Connecticut’s colonial settlers.
The markers could highlight how indigenous societies lived, what they ate, and what cultural practices were common. Metro Hartford has the opportunity to highlight indigenous history of diverse residents that immigrated to the region from other places, including the Taino of Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Caribbean islands. How about it Greater Hartford Arts Council and folks at the Museum of Connecticut History?
Mike Zaleski, Executive Director of Riverfront Recapture, was quick to respond to an inquiry about missing indigenous history in their parks. Here is the reply:
“The Joe Marfuggi Riverwalk, which we anticipate will be constructed within the next year or so, will connect Hartford to Windsor. Riverfront Recapture has been working diligently to make sure that this multi-modal trail is more than just an important regional trail connection. To that end, the Joe Marfuggi Riverwalk will include a history of the Connecticut River, including the Native American / First Peoples / Indigenous people who called this part of the river home. With a grant from CT Humanities Fund, we have contracted with the Resilient Cities, Racism and Equity department at UConn-Hartford (previously known as the Sustainable Global Cities Initiative) to pull together a history of the Connecticut River in the Connecticut River Valley. We envision 6 galleries along the way that will cover the geology, settlement, colonies, industry, infrastructure and environment of the Connecticut River in the Hartford area. UConn is gathering previous research and curating a history of the Connecticut River and those who lived along and beside the river. The state archeologist and state historian emeritus are involved with this project; their expertise includes Native Americans in the greater Hartford region. Our hope is that the settlement gallery will tell the history of how the Connecticut River valley was settled, developed and has become what it is today.
In addition, at the new property that Riverfront Recapture recently acquired on the Hartford / Windsor line, we will acknowledge those that have walked the land previously in our new park project. While we may be the current steward of the 60+ acre property, we recognize that we are not the first people to exist in this space and we will honor the many that have come before us.”
That sounds like a good start for the riverfront. To learn how you can get involved with and support the Joe Marfuggi Riverwalk, you can call Debbie Baker at (860) 713-3131, ext 326.
Now, we need that attention throughout the City of Hartford and the wider region. To build a sustainable and just future we cannot ignore over 10,000 years of human and natural history that came before us.